Underlying symptoms that should be on a producer’s radar

Traditionally, producers running dairy operations are the ones monitoring their cows for symptoms of hypocalcemia. However, livestock experts are now encouraging beef cattle producers to pay attention to the warning signs of calcium deficiency in their cattle. 

Hypocalcemia, also known as milk fever, occurs when the concentration of calcium in a cow’s blood falls below a critical threshold. Shortly before a cow calves, she deposits calcium into her fetus and secretes large amounts of calcium into her colostrum and milk. Therefore, it’s close to the time of calving that many cows are the most susceptible to hypocalcemia.

Other contributing factors include the cow’s age, stressful events such as severe weather, and a poor diet. “In the beef cow it is a dietary issue that can occur, in particular, if they are not receiving adequate mineral supplementation and that can be highly variable from operation to operation,” Rosslyn Biggs, DVM, assistant clinical professor, director of continuing education and beef cattle extension specialist at Oklahoma State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, stated. 

Clinical symptoms of hypocalcemia in beef cattle present a little bit differently than in dairy cattle. “The beef cattle tend to be more of a tetany-type, rigid-response, rather than what we might see classically in dairy cattle, which is a limp or flaccid-type of paralysis right around calving,” Biggs explained. 

If a cow exhibits clinical signs of hypocalcemia, immediate treatment is needed. “It can be life threatening particularly if she is severe and down,” Biggs said. “It really needs to be taken are of – it is an emergency.”

Cattle are typically treated with calcium administered intravenously and then followed up with oral calcium pills. “We are going to give them IV fluids with increased calcium in them,” Biggs said. “We need to see a response ideally immediately, but really within two hours of treatment.” 

While the clinical symptoms of hypocalcemia can be quite obvious, the subclinical indications may slip under the radar. Beef producers may be seeing health issues in their cow herd and fail to realize the problems are caused by hypocalcemia. “It is something that is brewing underneath the surface and can affect a number of different conditions that will cause us trouble,” Biggs added. 

Subclinical symptoms of hypocalcemia can include decreased milk production, dystocia, lower immune function, uterine prolapses, retained placentas, mastitis and displacement of the abomasum. These health issues in a cattle herd can be quite costly to a producer’s bottom line. 

There are steps producers can take to prevent hypocalcemia in their cows. Adequate and balanced nutrition will help ward of this health condition. Experts recommend farmers test their hay in order to know the nutritional value of the dry forage they are feeding their cows. 

Additionally, keeping a steady supply of mineral supplement available for livestock can keep hypocalcemia at bay. “We want to have a good mineral program specific to our area and for the type of animal that we are supplementing,” Biggs stated. Producers can reach out to their veterinarian or local livestock extension specialist for assistance with what mineral mix is best for their herd. 

Though young cows can get hypocalcemia, it occurs more commonly in older cows. When farmers evaluate their herd to determine which cows to cull, one consideration could be that hypocalcemia typically affects older cows.

Another prevention method farmers can take is to make sure animals have extra care during severe weather. “When it comes to significant weather events, like we had last February, we really need to be providing them with adequate shelter and nutrition,” Biggs said. 

Hypocalcemia can impact a cow’s performance and her productivity. No longer is this a health concern solely for dairy producers, experts recommend beef cattle producers also educate themselves on how to prevent hypocalcemia in their herds.


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